Birthday Party

[fiction]

The gravel churns under the wheels of the boxed-up Peugeot, the sound falling behind them into a quiet that exists where cities do not. Abbey checks her hair with her fingers. She’s learned how to turn it in a twist and secure it behind her head, letting chunks fall from the barrette and tickle her neckline. Céleste’s pale face pushes forward over the steering wheel, her bare arms painted with freckles and her invisible lashes blackened with thick layers of mascara.

“Shit,” Céleste says, turning quickly to check between the seats behind her. “I forgot my crown.”

The back seat is piled high with trays of food, tablecloths, blankets, and bundles of candlesticks. The lacey chocolate chip cookies Abbey baked that morning are wrapped in a plate and wedged at a slant in between champagne bottles stacked from the car floor. Céleste’s parents provided the champagne for the party.

“How sad. The birthday girl has no crown,” Céleste says. She is turning twenty-two.

Céleste’s friend from law school, Sébastien, has arranged for her to borrow his parents’ country house for the weekend. The parents, Céleste explains to Abbey, spend every summer weekend and all of August out there.

“His papa is working on an historical novel set in Brittany’s salty meadows, but in November and throughout the winter the house is empty.”

It’s raining when they arrive. The precipitation falls from a sky the color of paper bags, and as they pull up to the house, gray birds shoot from the slick slate roof as if the slate itself takes off in flight.

“We have two hours to get everything set up before the guests arrive,” Céleste says as she backs the car up to the side door.

*     *     *

Last August, Abbey left her suburban New Hampshire town to attend an American high school in France. She would spend nine months living with Céleste’s family—strangers to her, assigned by her study-abroad program—in Rennes, a small city several hours west of Paris.

All fall, she rode the subway to school, first walking past the low-rise apartment buildings where Muslim women pinned wet laundry over their cement balconies, their muted scarves flapping in the fickle breezes. She exited the subway at the botanical gardens and passed by the hundreds of varieties of roses, their dark green petals trembling under the weight of daily falling raindrops, but it was the dirty, perspiring windows of the city greenhouse—the layers and layers of neglected grime—that made Abbey want to run home just before arriving at her school building and rub off the suffocating city filth from her skin.

The high school was housed in an elegant brick building that smelled of mildew and adolescent sweat. Students laughed their way up creaky stairs to alcoved classrooms where they studied Existentialism and Dadaism and pined away for the familiarity of America, waiting for the mail to be delivered and distributed each day by the program secretary, Madame Dalfine. From what Abbey could tell, however, most of the Americans at her new school transitioned easily to the sophistication of French life; and besides, in the US they attended fancy boarding schools and did drugs and had boyfriends and girlfriends. In New Hampshire, Abbey had worked at a small farm stand, had never held a boy’s hand.

At night, Abbey helped her host mother make mayonnaise or salad dressing, or she sliced pieces of baguette over a plastic tablecloth for dinner while, for hours, her host brother chased the chocolate puppy up and down a narrow hallway running from the front door to the small bathroom at the back of the house, saliva flinging sideways from the dog’s droopy lips and splattering on the walls. Abbey’s host father, Roland, spent an hour with her each night looking down past his swollen, pockmarked nose across the pages of her school notebooks, correcting her French spelling with a blueberry-ink plastic fountain pen and taking personal offense over her illegible American handwriting.

Céleste usually came home late from her law school, sharing news with her mother before folding herself deep into the couch cushions in front of the television set to watch classic black-and-white Hollywood movies, from time to time declaring certain actors and actresses “Genius.” Sometimes Abbey would stand under the doorframe in the living room, listening to the dubbed French jumping over the American actors’ lips on the small television, wishing Céleste would talk to her, acknowledge her in some meaningful way.

*     *     *

The main room of the country house is a cave-like space under high ceilings, built with cool, round stones. Abbey and Céleste move a long, thick-legged table—squat and sturdy like a country workhorse, and prairie-bleached—to the side of the room where dinner will be served; twenty guests will fit there, easily. They move the chairs to clear the middle of the room for dancing.

“I’ll set the table,” Abbey says. She unfolds the tablecloths and lays out the mismatched china Céleste has borrowed from multiple friends. The wine glasses ring hollow and squeak between her fingers when she unwraps them from the crate. Céleste sets up the blankets in the bedrooms, and the smell of a moist, impending winter cold creeps up Abbey’s bare legs and under her nose. They are saving the lighting of the fire for when Sébastien gets there; the large stone fireplace stands taller than either of them.

*     *     *

While Abbey’s friends back home rode shotgun in boys’ cars to keg parties after Friday night football games, Abbey hid under the low-hanging eaves of a makeshift guest room listening to the water heater behind the bedroom wall and imagining a world of experiences just beyond her reach…

Abbey’s high school friends were almost hostile toward her decision to spend their junior year abroad. “You’ll miss everything,” they said at the end of the summer. One of her friends had recently started fooling around with a senior soccer player, meeting up with him after summer preseason practices and laying her body across the damp pine needles that carpeted the woods behind the school.

“I lost my underpants out by Edson’s Pond,” the friend confided, and the rest of the girls pulled her into the Friendly’s bathroom, demanding details. “Well,” the friend said, suddenly shy, maybe coy, “I can’t really say more. Not yet.” But Abbey saw the girl’s smile freeze for a second and her eyes darken before her confidence returned. “I’ll tell you soon! I promise! Let me get used to it first.”

This new development seemed to open up an entirely new social landscape for them for the upcoming school year.

“Abbey, you can’t leave us now,” they said. “Ricky Babson’s parents are headed out of town for Labor Day weekend, and Mike Joncey said we were invited over. Ricky’s older brother is setting him up with beer and everything.”

“I can’t believe you’ll be on a plane. To France! You’ll miss the party.”

“And football season.”

“And the Casino Night fundraiser. My mom promised she wouldn’t volunteer this year.”

“And getting your license! When you get back, we’ll have been driving around by ourselves for a year, and you’ll still need to apply for your learner’s permit.”

*     *     *

“Abbey, coucou, you need lipstick. Let me do it.” Céleste has brought her bag to the dining table, and takes out a gold case. She slips the lid off, metallic plastic popping open a faint suction, and she touches Abbey’s bottom lip with a cherry stick smelling of petroleum and elderflowers. Abbey’s chest rises and falls with a shallow breath, the nerves from her lips radiating warmth below her jawline and out to her ears.

She wears a stretchy green top and a pleated wool skirt, no stockings. In the U.S., her friends always said she had the sexiest legs. Her feet slip forward in heels she borrowed from her host mother. The week before, she bought a glass ring from a Tunisian street vendor in the center of town. It is translucent with cuts of red and blue swirling around the interior. At the time, Abbey had felt very French purchasing that ring, but Céleste’s fingers are bare and adorned only with chipping nail polish, and the weight of the glass bauble is distracting.

*     *     *

Céleste ignored Abbey for three months. While Abbey made mayonnaise by beating egg yolks with a fork until they emulsified, Céleste was at the bars with friends. While Abbey swallowed her gag reflex as her host father’s mossy breath spread around her school papers, Céleste watched her favorite movies and then let the front door snap behind her when she headed back out into the late night. While Abbey’s friends back home rode shotgun in boys’ cars to keg parties after Friday night football games, Abbey hid under the low-hanging eaves of a makeshift guest room listening to the water heater behind the bedroom wall and imagining a world of experiences just beyond her reach, in a language she barely spoke.

And then, in November and without warning, Céleste announced to the family her plans for a birthday party in the country. She would invite her friends from law school; Sébastien had just the house for such a celebration. She would cook the food ahead of time and borrow what she needed from friends.

“Abbey, you will need a pair of heels for the party,” she said. And just like that, Abbey saw the door swing open, her life about to start. “Do you know how to make chocolate chip cookies?”

The morning of the party, Abbey baked the cookies without baking soda on papery tinfoil and watched through the oven window as they spread paper-thin to the on-off ticking sound of the gas line. Abbey peeled strips of foil from the backs of molten sugar and chocolate and wondered if Céleste would tell her not to come. But the birthday girl didn’t even look at the cookies when it was time to pack up the car to go.

*     *     *

The party guests arrive all at once: women in short black dresses brimming with silk scarves, men in blue jeans and starched white shirts. They bring into the stone house bottles of wine, chirpy greetings, and a shared sexual bravado. The Christmas lights Céleste and Abbey strung around the room blur under a tobacco haze to dot the air with a magical forest glow. Abbey stands mute amidst the noise, her nose running slightly from the rising body heat filling the room.

A man with deep russet cheekbones and chestnut hair talks with Sébastien by the roaring fire. Sébastien is taller, but the other man swings his hips while he gestures with his cigarette and commands more of the space. Céleste kisses them both on the cheeks and then kisses the man once more on the lips. She takes her time rubbing her lipstick off him. He leans over her, whispering, and Céleste threads her arm through his and leads him to where Abbey is standing alone.

“Abbey, chérie, I would like to introduce you to Paul.” Céleste brushes him gently on the chest. “He would like to try some of your flat cookies.”

Paul takes a long drag from his cigarette and cracks open the corner of his mouth while he looks intently into Abbey’s face. Smoke escapes from his lips in a narrow sheet of white. He is one of those people who make fun through their eyes.

Enchanté, Abbey.”

“When Abbey first moved in with my family, I told her that she looks like the film actress, Deanna Durbin, but she had no idea who I was talking about.” Céleste taps the tip of her own nose. “Deanna Durbin: the American beauty. My God!”

Paul continues to look at Abbey, and Abbey runs a hangnail across the wool pleats in her skirt.

“But Deanna Durbin moved to Paris when her career was over. So perhaps we should consider her French,” Paul says.

Céleste laughs. “Imbécil.”

*     *     *

Paul sits next to Abbey at the long table for dinner.

When Céleste brings out the food, the guests whoop and holler, and the men bang on the uneven wood with their hands. Céleste pats above her flaming Titian hair, as if to adjust the crown she forgets is not there.

Paul and Abbey find a tiny library at the far end of the house, and in it, an entire shelf of erotica.

They pass around shells filled with Coquilles St. Jacques, the buttery breadcrumbs browned over lumps of sweet scallops. People use slices of baguette to wipe their shells clean, and then clink their forks and knives against plates piled high with bright green lettuce glistening in a mustard vinaigrette. The candlelight reflects on the surface of wine in glasses, tiny tilting windows of moonlight at the table in the country house at night.

Abbey tries hard to understand the rapid back-and-forth exchanges over politics and history. A piece of lettuce falls from her fork just as she opens her mouth, and she snatches it from the tablecloth and eats it quickly with her fingers, glancing at Céleste at the head of the table. A woman is swinging her arms over her head, and Céleste claps slowly, her bright red lips parted against pale skin that glows luminescent like the powdery wings of an evening moth. She doesn’t seem to notice Abbey.

Paul snaps across the table at a laughing friend. “Ai, oh! More wine for the American.” He winks at Abbey. “In France, even the children drink wine with dinner.”

Céleste leaves the table and returns with a tray of cheeses.

“To the birthday girl!” someone shouts, and Céleste addresses the guests, “Dis donc. Ce soir, vous m’appelez la Reine.”

There is dancing after dinner. Paul keeps his hand on the small of Abbey’s back and his nose nuzzled in her hair. When he breathes out, dime-sized circles of moist heat disappear into her scalp. The room pulses with techno music and smells like the subway at the end of the day: a bitter body odor that lingers in Abbey’s throat. Empty champagne bottles roll across the floor.

Paul whispers in her ear, “Let’s explore the farmhouse.”

They pass through the small kitchen where two women scrape plates into a plastic garbage can, their voices sharp with gossip. One of the women looks into a spoon and pinches her cheeks, makes an O with her mouth. Paul kisses her from behind on the back of her neck before he hops through the galley like a faun, holding Abbey’s hand. The spoon hits the linoleum.

“Paul! Shit, you made me drop a spoon.”

Paul shields his eyes and lifts Abbey under his other arm to carry her onward. She scrunches her toes to keep her heels from falling off.

“Paul, be nice to that poor girl!”

Abbey covers her mouth to hide her smile, the attention and wine brewing warmly inside her like the coffee smells that fill the kitchen.

Overnight bags have been thrown into each of the small bedrooms. Paul and Abbey find a tiny library at the far end of the house, and in it, an entire shelf of erotica. The din of the party seeps under the door like an echo while they put their heads together and laugh, Abbey’s head spinning in circles. When Paul sits down on the desk, he pulls her between his legs, his jeans heavy with detergent against her bare thighs. He holds a book of erotica to the side and directs his pointy nose into its pages like a professor.

“Oh !” he says, quickly shutting the book with a loud smack. “I don’t know if you’re old enough for this pornography.” And shaking his finger, “You Americans lead sheltered lives.”

His eyes flash amusement, and then, very slowly and holding her gaze, he draws a long line from the base of her neck down her spine to the split in her behind. Scaly goose bumps blossom in waves under her dress. She draws a quick breath.

“On second thought,” he says, smiling, “this is part of your French education, no?” Abbey raises her eyebrows and makes a face she’s never felt before. “Maybe I’d better translate it into English so you don’t miss the good bits.”

The author is Anaïs Nin, someone Abbey’s never heard of, and it is the dirtiest book she has ever read. The words slurp up from the page through his accent and cover her with slowly running liquid metal.

Pierre’s mouth gathered the fresh foam between her legs, but he would not let her reach her pleasure. He teased her.

Must from the books tickles the air. Abbey’s underpants are still twisted from when Paul carried her under his arm, and now one half bites painfully between her cheeks.

He held her legs apart. His hair fell on her belly and caressed her. His left hand reached for one of her breasts.

Paul turns the page. He fingers the edge of Abbey’s sleeve, separates her fingers with his, slides off the glass ring. The ring knocks twice against the surface of the desk where he places it.

 She was completely under the spell of Pierre’s fingers, awaiting pleasure from him. When finally his erect penis touched her soft body, it was as if he had burned her.

Building energy vibrates from down the hall, interrupting their reading, and there are cries of “Un… Deux… Trois!” and then the slow, mournful drag of Bon Anniversaire sung tuneless in the anarchy of merrymakers.

The barrette in Abbey’s hair springs open, and she grabs for the twist.

“No,” she says. She stumbles back and trips out of a heel. “No, they are singing.” She points to the door. “I have the cookies in the kitchen.” Her loose hair falls over her shoulders.

Paul clicks his tongue, shaking Anaïs Nin at her. “We are just getting to the interesting part in our book.”

Abbey stands with one bare foot on the cold floor. The room is not heated, and she starts to shiver. Her glass ring looks like a cube of ice on the desk.

“Céleste will be angry if we don’t sing to her.”

Paul watches her with his mouth open, his tongue curled behind his teeth. Abbey turns her ankle while stepping into the loose heel, takes a further step away from Paul, and her cheeks warm with embarrassment. She feels like a child in dress-up shoes, mistaking a real house for a playhouse.

Paul lets out a slow whistle, drawing circles around the deep sound with his chin. He stands up. “Come on, then. The birthday girl is waiting.”

*     *     *

After the cake and cookies, Céleste offers Abbey a cigarette and holds open the front door. They step outside, and the night breeze folds over them, soft as a blanket but cool like running water. For the moment, the rain has stopped. Music from the party flows in tinny muffles into the darkness.

Abbey has never wanted to be a girl in the pine needles behind the high school with a soccer player. She’s been getting letters from home, other friends taking off their clothes at parties, giving blowjobs in parked cars, puking their guts out on peach schnapps and orange juice, and then making the same mistakes again the next weekend when another kid’s parents go out of town. The giddiness of gratitude her friends show to do the same thing week after week after week mystifies Abbey. She sits with herself—in the US, in France—alone, lonely, restless, disgusted, bored, teased into hopefulness by the faint promise of a world that lies all around her, waiting for her to awaken into something more, someone more.

The Paul in the farmhouse library in France scares her a bit, and yet, he could be her more, he is what she is not waiting for back home. Maybe.

Abbey has never wanted to be a girl in the pine needles behind the high school with a soccer player.

Coucou.” Céleste nudges Abbey’s foot. She points the red tip of her cigarette toward the sky and looks away from Abbey over the dark fields. “You know, when you first arrived, I didn’t like you. You seemed kind of stupid. Besides, it was my parents’ idea to host an American student, not ours.” She swallows a short cough. “They bought that puppy so we wouldn’t resent your coming so much.” Céleste leans her shoulder into Abbey’s. “Now look at us. Drunk on champagne at my birthday party.”

Abbey adjusts her cigarette to hang between her two fingers just like Céleste’s does.

“I’m sorry the cookies were so ugly.”

Céleste laughs through her nose. “Did you see how people ate them? ‘Real American chocolate chip cookies,’ I told everyone.” She drags on her cigarette and exhales. “They tasted like air.” And then she says, “I see that Paul likes you.”

An owl crows like a rooster down the road they drove in on earlier that day. The air stills and the temperature seems to drop, as if, with great speed, someone has built a wall of ice around them.

Céleste grinds her cigarette butt into the gravel and dusts off her hands.

“Watch this. I learned it from a Hollywood magazine.” She leans forward and scoops her breasts out of her bra. In the light of the country house windows, in the crisp fall air, one of Céleste’s nipples flashes tight and pink from her cupped hand. She stands up and shakes back her hair, her breasts spreading at the top of her dress. “Et voilà, maximum cleavage.”

*     *     *

Back inside, Abbey looks for Paul in the party room. The round stone walls draw shadowed hollows in the dying light of used up candles. The long table is littered with dessert plates and rumpled tablecloths. Sweat and coffee and sweet marijuana smoke, and something new to Abbey—the scent of desire and coupling—thicken the air; humidity hangs over the room.

For some time she sits at the table, dizzyingly watching the darkened scenes play out around her like a movie. Two women stagger and trip, arm in arm, their scarves intertwined around their shoulders. A man follows behind them, one fist pumping the air against the techno beat, the other hitched to his belt like a cowboy. Sébastien dances in slow circles with a man in a purple hat whose hands hide in Sébastien’s back pockets.

Someone walks into Abbey’s chair. A pain knocks inside her heavy head.

“Oof!” he grunts. He peers down at Abbey and points. “Who are you? Are you lost?”

“I live with Céleste,” she says.

The man pulls on a thin goatee.

“You are mistaken. It is I who lives with Céleste,” he says. “And you talk funny.”

Abbey crosses her legs and grips the edge of the chair, trying to think of what to say. Maybe he knows where Paul is. She brings her eyes to focus against the nubby texture of her skirt. She speaks into the texture.

“I’m from the United States.”

The man looks over his shoulder, scratches his crotch.

“Where’s the rest of the champagne?”

He walks away without waiting for an answer and disappears down the hallway to the bedrooms.

Paul is not in the big stone room. Couples sit in corners, limbs knotted over limbs. The fire embers glow orange like cats’ eyes at the bottom of the fireplace. Rain begins to tap on the windows.

Abbey puts her fingertips to her throat and feels the buzz of Paul’s accent reading words like pleasure and erect and burn. The buzz moves between her legs. She stands, soberer now, thinking she will find him in the library.

She will kiss him. When the weekend is over, she imagines sitting knee to knee in a café back in the city. He will help her with her French and tell her she’s beautiful, say to everyone she’s got sexy legs. They will discuss politics while walking through the rose garden holding hands. She will write to her friends about her older French boyfriend.

One path to the library is through the kitchen. Abbey stumbles on the step up. She is caught by a sound that reaches her first as isolation, then as a question mark.

A man, his shirt hanging over his bottom, his pants pooled at his feet, stands by the sink with his back to Abbey. His pale legs are washed in the dim green light from the oven clock, legs as stiff as pencils and groomed with soft hair. His breath is barely audible, like a whispered confession that comes rapidly and is without ending. There, on his pinky, is Abbey’s glass ring.

Facing him, a woman leans against the wall. Her hair is the color of carrot juice, and she wears a makeshift crown of pinched and molded tinfoil. Between raspy moans, she laughs in quick licks of air.

Abbey digs her nails into skin just below her pleated skirt, unwilling to make a sound. There is nowhere to go but around the couple or retreat. Céleste opens her eyes. Her cherry lips part, and she winks at Abbey.

She lies down on the hard, cold floor, bunching up her skirt like a pillow, then closes her eyes. She wishes she could sleep for months.

“Paul, coucou,” Céleste whispers, watching Abbey. “You are my birthday present.” Paul moans.

Abbey trains her eyes downward, backs up shakily, returns to the party room. The techno pulses but the only guests around are passed out on the floor. She is all alone, standing in the stone room. The candles have burned out. It’s very late. Céleste’s wink is a slap.

Abbey steps out of her heels. She walks over to the fireplace. The embers still glow, and heat radiates against her bare shins. She crouches down and dangles her host-mother’s shoes over the coals. They tilt precariously on the tips of her fingers.

As she stares into the embers and feels the listing weight of the shoes, Abbey forces away the scene from the kitchen and begins composing a letter to send home to her friends. She’ll address it to all of them, a group letter. Hey guys! I met a man, she’ll write. A law student named Paul. The heat from the embers strips the inside of her nose. During the week, I meet him after school when his classes are done, and we get coffee and talk, and he helps me with my homework. He taught me to like cigarettes.

The letter bores her. She takes one shoe and pushes the toe into the embers, twisting it back and forth. Orange sparks shoot into the air and Abbey leans out of the way. Shifting her weight forward again, she uses the other shoe to scoop hot ash around the sculpted toe, burying the satin vamp. She starts again on the letter.

Guess what?! I met a man. His name is Paul. He has the cutest accent when he speaks English. He’s the best kisser, and he takes me out with his friends and holds my hand.

Abbey lets go of both shoes and twists her hair into a knot. It comes undone right away and falls into her face. The shoe that is already half-buried begins to smoke.

Dear Ladies, I’ve met a man named Paul! He’s very romantic, and things in France are so much more mature than in the U.S. He takes me out to dinner with his friends, and I spend the weekend nights at his house. He lives with his parents because that’s what people do here, even when they are in law school, like Paul. I have to lie to my host family about spending the night out, but Paul’s parents treat me like a grown-up, and it’s just like we have our own apartment when we are alone in his room.

The smoke thickens. Abbey puts a finger in the ash around the edge of the fireplace. The ash there is cool and she touches it to the tip of her tongue.

Bonjour, les amies. I met someone! My host sister, Céleste, introduced us at her really cool birthday party out in the country. He read to me from a book by the famous French author, Anaïs Nin, and he read with the sexiest English accent, and we slow-danced by ourselves while everyone else sang happy birthday and ate cake. He’s such a good kisser. It’s been a few weeks now, and we meet up every afternoon with his friends, and they are so fun, too. Last weekend, he took me away to a hotel. Sex is No Big Deal here, but he still wanted our first time to be special. Céleste helped me make up a lie to her parents about going away on a school trip so that I could be with Paul. Oh, his name is Paul.

Both shoes continue to smolder, and a few transparent flames jump from the ashes and disappear. Abbey takes off her stretchy shirt and drapes it over the shoes and embers. In just seconds, the shirt starts to wiggle and shrink, the green material blackens as it melts into the form of the underlying high heeled shoes. Green flames leap up, grab hold of the two shoes, and they begin to come apart, sending out the smell of burning hair.

Abbey turns away from the fire. She’s in her bra and skirt, which looks stupid. She takes off the skirt and leaves it in a pile on the floor. One of the tablecloths hangs over the end of the long dining table, and Abbey shakes it off—knocking around empty glasses and dirty plates—and wraps it around her body. She lies down on the hard, cold floor, bunching up her skirt like a pillow, then closes her eyes. She wishes she could sleep for months.

Two people walk past her, their sharp heels clicking on the old stones.

“Is that the American?” one asks.

“She’s lost her clothes, poor puppy,” says the other. “Perhaps Céleste should have brought a babysitter.”

Abbey won’t send any letter to her friends. There is nothing to tell them. She wonders why she can’t just start with a kiss. A kiss would be enough for her, she thinks.

Tomorrow, she will help Céleste clean up from the party and they will drive home. Céleste will act like nothing happened, and Abbey will apologize to her host mother for losing her shoes at the party.

 

Author’s note: The Anaïs Nin Trust has given permission to include quotes from Anaïs Nin’s short story, “Runaway.”

 

Milena Nigam is a Pittsburgh-based writer and a 2016 fellow at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. She was a finalist in Cutthroat Journal’s Rick DeMarinis 2014 short story contest, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in YARNPithead ChapelSliceFull Grown PeopleThe Fourth RiverLunch TicketHippocampus Magazine, and elsewhere. Milena is currently an editor at Halfway Down the Stairs and is working on a novel set in northwestern France.